Stranger Things has become Netflix’s latest cultural conversation starter due in no small part to its fierce loyalty to the works of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and pretty much every other prominent genre filmmaker and novelist from the 1980s. But the show’s success isn’t just due to the scenes, shots, and scenarios it cribs — though there are certainly plenty. It also emulates the storytelling style of the era: a time when movies reigned supreme, stories had endings, and just because something was a hit didn’t mean it warranted 42 tie-in comic books and an interconnected cinematic universe.
It was also a time before labyrinthian backstories and fan-theory-baiting Easter eggs were the norm for serialized primetime drama. But just because that’s where Stranger Things draws its influence doesn’t mean that’s where it will end up. "There’s a lot there we don’t know or understand," co-creator Ross Duffer recently told Variety when discussing a potential second season. "Even with the Upside Down, we have a 30-page document that is pretty intricate in terms of what it all means, and where this monster actually came from."
"We wanted a simple drive [for the first season] and a somewhat simple mystery with bizarre pops of supernatural horror," elaborated his brother, co-creator Matt Duffer, "and then add a larger mythology behind this rift that we only know and refer to as the Upside Down, because that’s what the boys decide to call it."
For shows that air week to week, the allure of ongoing mythology is obvious
Mythology. Television shows have become so reliant on the idea of a complex, overarching backstory — preferably a conspiracy — that it’s hard to fathom a time before The X-Files and The Smoking Man set the template back in the 1990s. But while Chris Carter’s series may have been the modern progenitor, J.J. Abrams made it a mainstream staple, first with Alias’ relentless Rambaldi prophecies, then in 2004 with Lost. In the pantheon of mythology-driven television, Lost still stands above all others, if for no other reason than it’s the show that fans continue to feel failed most spectacularly in paying off its premise. (The fact that Abrams and co-creator Damon Lindelof basically had to lie to ABC to get the series greenlit, swearing it would not feature an overarching mystery, just makes it more delicious.)
Despite its conclusion, Lost’s runaway success inspired a generation of copycats, and that mythology-show DNA has lived on with shows like Fringe, Sleepy Hollow, Person of Interest — and increasingly, as the Ned Stark flashbacks pile up, Game of Thrones. The allure is obvious, particularly for shows that air weekly on networks or cable. Mythology gives audiences something to gnaw on and theorize about while waiting for the next episode to come around, something to tide them over in lieu of a binge-watch. It’s also plot insurance against snarky recappers: even when an episode falls short it can often be chalked up to something that will eventually pay off once all the show’s secrets are revealed. The first season of Mr. Robot was a perfect example: as Rami Malek’s Elliot succumbed to morphine withdrawals and the season took some of its trippier turns, the taut thriller that creator Sam Esmail had set up seemed to be falling apart. But once the show unwrapped its big reveal, those moments fell neatly into place. (It’s up in the air if the same will be said for the show’s struggling second season, but thus far I’m leaning toward "no.")
But if mythology-driven TV has historically been best for shows told in weekly installments over the course of years, it may now be finding itself at odds with audience tastes. The rise of binge watching and the popularity of anthology shows like American Horror Story or True Detective — series that tell an entire self-contained story within the course of a single season — point to viewers becoming increasingly interested in tales that can be ingested over a shorter period of time. "The evolution in TV drama, away from open-ended stories and toward something with a more readily discernible shape, may reflect a craving for order," critic Matt Zoller Seitz recently wrote for Vulture. "Major motion pictures are increasingly enamored with the 'expanded universe' model, in which core characters and situations recur throughout a series of interconnected tales with foreshadowing and callbacks, essentially spreading out one huge story over many years." Where audiences once flocked to serialized television because they couldn’t get rich, longform storytelling in movie theaters, now they’re drawn because they’re looking for a break from it.
The secret of 'Stranger Things' is that it has no mythology, only a series of questions and visceral peaks
In a sense, Stranger Things was engineered for this moment, and not in a cynical way. It’s a series that was designed to be watched over a confined eight episodes, yes, but its magic in evoking nostalgia comes hand-in-hand with its rejection of overloaded narratives or byzantine mysteries. The rules of Stranger Things’ universe are vague, sketched in, there to provide the barest amount of narrative logic needed to let the story continue. This is in keeping with its influences: there is no elaborate reason why Richard Dreyfuss becomes obsessed with aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Stephen King never details the ultimate origin of Pennywise the Clown in It. As a result, Stranger Things is a series that essentially has no mythology, only a series of questions and visceral peaks.
All of which makes the idea of a new season potentially focused on the backstory of the Upside Down, the conspiracy behind Matthew Modine’s secretive government agency, or the origins of that del Toro-tastic monster sound particularly underwhelming. On one hand, sure, it’s no big deal: the Duffer Brothers have already done the conceptual world-building, and have the answers to the show’s various questions ready to go if and should they need them. But not only is Stranger Things not a show built upon weekly cliffhanger reveals, it’s one that fundamentally depends on the innocence — and ignorance — of its main characters to function.
It is no coincidence that the show’s tragedies and horrors are experienced in limited doses, and only by children (or those that have been left emotionally crippled and child-like). They’re moves pulled directly from Spielberg and King’s respective playbooks, and they lend even the darkest moments of the show a sense of magic and wonder. But it’s difficult to imagine how Stranger Things will maintain that sense of innocence while exposing the mysteries of its universe. The problem can already be sensed in what’s arguably the weakest part of the first season: its ending, where instead of serving up a satisfying, self-contained conclusion, audiences are offered multiple trails of bread crumbs promising that nothing has really changed and none of the characters have really grown from their experiences at all.
The Duffers have been vocal in touting how much creative freedom Netflix gave them with the first season — so odds are any explorations of Upside Down space-time mechanics won’t be mandated by the streaming service. But in this case, they may be wise to keep their platform in mind. The conspiracy-driven serial sub-genre has always been uniquely suited for week-to-week viewing, and watching these shows outside of that model can diminish the benefits they bring to the table. Spending a summer wondering what the hell was inside the hatch after the end of Lost’s first season may have imbued the eventual reveal with drama in 2005, but it’s just a momentary blip if you’re plowing through everything online. In fact, binging a show can change the way a show's perceived entirely.
Future seasons may want to keep the show's platform in mind
I neglected to watch Lost when it originally aired because I missed the first season and didn’t want to worry about catching up on all the complex mythology. To my surprise, when I just binge-watched the show a couple of years ago, that mythology was of little interest at all. My attention was drawn to the characters above all else, with the island mysteries playing as little more than a sideshow gimmick that kept the wheels turning. (Suffice to say that I didn’t find the ending to be a soul-crushing frustration, either.)
And perhaps that’s the takeaway from Stranger Things. I watched the show in two days straight because I wanted to hang out with Dustin, Eleven, Mike, and Lucas. I wanted to see if Hopper could redeem himself, and if Joyce could hold it together long enough to find her son. That’s what audiences have loved, and that’s what will keep audiences coming back. Everything else — alternative dimensions, conspiracies, monsters; meh — is just noise.